WASHINGTON — IF one picture is worth a thousand words, proponents of a constitutional amendment to punish flag burning have found their picture: a flag on fire. But opponents, who insist the larger issue is constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression, are still groping for their illustration. Until they find it, it will be difficult for them to explain their position as clearly to the American people.
``Visually, it's easier to explain the flag-burning problem - you can see it,'' says House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, an opponent. ``We have to explain freedom.''
Members of Congress and others who favor a constitutional amendment continue to speak loudly in Washington. They say that is the only way to protect the flag from degradation.
Representative Gephardt is among a smaller number of members speaking out against such an amendment. ``It's a choice between two important things,'' he says, ``protecting the flag, which I think all of us want to do ... [and] the Bill of Rights, protecting free speech.''
The Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, were crafted to protect the freedoms and rights of individual Americans, including freedom of speech.
In its 198 years in force, the Bill of Rights has never been amended. Gephardt and other proposal opponents are concerned about setting a precedent. ``My worry about amending the Bill of Rights, is - what's next?'' he told a Monitor breakfast.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the amendment within the next two weeks. Gephardt thinks the vote - a two-thirds majority is required for passage - will be close. Later this summer the Senate is to ballot.